Daniel Gordis has a passionate, moving and articulate piece on the decline of Conservative Judaism. It also, unfortunately, misses the point.
Nor was what doomed Conservative Judaism the incessantly discussed vast gulf in practice between the rabbis and their congregants. What really doomed the movement is that Conservative Judaism ignored the deep existential human questions that religion is meant to address.
Except that is exactly what doomed Conservative Judaism. Every liberal religious stream sets out to address deep existential questions that none of their congregants actually want to talk about, except in times of trouble, and which it can have no convincing answers for, because…
Looming unasked in Conservative circles is the following question: Can one create a community committed to the rigors of Jewish traditional living without a literal (read Orthodox) notion of revelation at its core?
Conservative Judaism could have been the movement that made an argument for tradition and distinctiveness without a theological foundation that is for most modern Jews simply implausible; instead of theology, it could have spoken of traditional Judaism and its spiritual discipline as our unique answer to the human need for meaning.
Without revelation, why should any of the congregants take anything the Conservative Rabbis said as anything more than a particular point of view?
All that stuff about unique answers and human need for meaning and deep questions is commonplace. So are most of the answers. None of those answers provide any enduring reason for remaining Jewish.
The gap between the Rabbis, who were fascinated by the technical stuff, and the congregations who weren’t, is at the heart of the problem. With that gap in place, there was never any hope. And trying to transcend the gap by talking philosophy doesn’t work. It barely works for Modern Orthodox and it doesn’t work all that well for them either. There are people who will be absolutely fascinated by it, but they’re usually potential students.
The Orthodox world simply organized communities around religious practice and practice around revelation. Without that, you have abstract philosophy.
As Conservative writers and rabbis addressed questions such as “are we halakhic,” “how are we halakhic,” and “should we be halakhic,” most of the women and men in the pews responded with an uninterested shrug. They were not in shul, for the most part, out of a sense of legally binding obligation. Had that been what they were seeking, they would have been in Orthodox synagogues. They had come to worship because they wanted a connection to their people, to transcendence, to a collective Jewish memory that would give them cause for rejoicing and reason for weeping, and they wanted help in transmitting that to their children. While these laypeople were busy seeking a way to explain to their children why marrying another Jew matters, how a home rooted in Jewish ritual was enriching, and why Jewish literacy still mattered in a world in which there were no barriers to Jews’ participating in the broader culture, their religious leadership was speaking about whether or not the movement was halakhic or how one could speak of revelation in an era of biblical criticism.
That’s right… and it’s also wrong. It’s like the old line about the worst way of being happy is to go looking for it.
You don’t become happy by searching for happiness. You don’t do all that stuff about collective memory, transcendence and reasons for rejoicing and weeping by going looking for them. You run into them while living a committed life as part of an ethno-religious group that traces its way of life and identity back thousands of years.
You either commit and find what you’re looking for… or you look for things without ever finding them.
The movement never wrote the way that Taylor writes, and it never taught its rabbis to think or to speak with that kind of deep existential and spiritual seriousness. It could have, though. It could have invoked Jewish intellectuals, like Michael Sandel, who wrote in Liberalism and the Limits of Justice, that:
[W]e cannot regard ourselves as independent . . . without . . . understanding ourselves as the particular persons we are—as members of this family or community or nation or people, as bearers of this history, as sons and daughters of that revolution, as citizens of this republic . . . For to have character is to know that I move in a history I neither summon nor command, which carries consequences nonetheless for my choices and conduct. It draws me closer to some and more distant from others; it makes some aims more appropriate, others less so.
All this is pretty enough and yet ultimately meaningless. The endless intellectualizing misses the point. Religion is community. It’s not rhetoric.
The Orthodox failed to build a community for generations in the United States because they kept building communities around study halls, instead of around people. They eventually learned how to combine both.
It’s not the big questions that bring people in. But the little ones.
Community is custom. But maintaining a community in an essentially assimilationist society is doomed without culture. And culture requires separation. Separation is an onerous duty that requires revelation.
Without revelation, everything becomes arbitrary. The most serious rhetoric is undone because if you discard revelation, there is no longer any confidence in anything. All things become arbitrary. Tradition is honored out of sentimentality, rather than accepted as obligation.
And that’s how it all ends.
Once a religion admits its arbitrariness by disavowing revelation, it no longer has a reason to exist except convenience.